Early female scientists

Were there any female scientists before the 18th century and development of scientific study?

The world’s first major scientific institution called The Royal Society was founded in London in 1660. This institution was set up by men who were interested in science and was designed to enable other like-minded men to meet and exchange scientific ideas.  Prior to the establishment of this society, scientific men would meet in each other’s homes to discuss scientific matters.  Very few women gained entry to The Royal Society since science was viewed then, as it is now, a predominantly male-only profession, because women are supposedly incapable of understanding the complexities of‘science.’  Instead women’s primary role was and still is to a large extent one wherein they are expected to marry, raise children and run the family home.

But women have always participated in science and have made discoveries, experimented in laboratories; studied nature and even designed scientific apparatus.  But the reason why these women scientists’ names are not well-known compared to male scientists such as Aristotle,  Isaac Newton and Robert Hook, to name just three, is because male-centric scientific historians have deliberately written out and/or ignored the achievements of women scientists.  Prior to creating the term ‘scientist’ in 1833,  women and men who devoted their lives to defining, describing and explaining how our universe operates were named Natural Philosophers.

They sought to understand how the physical laws operate in conjunction with organisms that inhabit our universe.  Medicine too is a combination of natural and social science.

The ‘Natural Philosophers’ were not all men, contrary to widespread belief but included innumerable women because female ‘scientists’ have been involved in the study of science since the prehistoric age.  Male historians have consistently focused on the myth of ‘man the hunter’ with woman supposedly remaining in the cave taking care of her children whilst she waited for the man to return. But gathering food rather than hunting was the primary method of survival  and it was women who were the first botanists.  Women  not men were the ones who learned through a process of experimentation which plants were edible and not poisonous; the various stages of plant growth and other agricultural aspects.  So too in ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians and of course not forgetting Ancient Greece women were to be found devoting themselves to scientific study.   But because patriarchal societies viewed and continue to believe science is the province of men not women, the women scientists have been written out of male-centric scientific history.

Most Natural Philosophers were drawn from the upper classes because the study of science requires education, creativity, intelligence and determination.  This is why it was primarily upper class women who were the ones able to study science since they were able to gain an education and used this knowledge to pursue their scientific studies.   However, girls were excluded from male-only formal educational facilities as were female scientists excluded from male only scientific fraternities.

One such woman was Trotula an Italian woman who lived in Salerno during the 11th century.  Trotula and ‘the ladies of Salerno’ were the ones who helped to revive interest in the science of the Ancient Greeks.  Trotula and her female colleagues were renowned within scientific circles for their expertise as physicians and medical scholars.  They were based at the School of Salerno in Ital which was a medical centre  and had by the 11th century gained a reputation for excellence in scientific study.  It was at this school that scholars began to translate the ancient Greek medical writings from Arabic into Latin.  The school’s work played a major role in the development of medical facilities elsewhere in the medieval world.

The fact women were able not only to study at the School of Salerno but also teach both female and male students was not unusual because from the time of the Romans, Italian women were not excluded from educational opportunities.  Despite the fact most Italian medieval upper class women were illiterate, the Italian universities did not bar female students and in fact had a long tradition of having female students and female professors.  Italy was one of the few countries during this period which permitted women to study alongside men.

Little is known about Trotula’s life but she was probably married to physician Johannes Platearius and died in Salerno circa 1097.  When the School of Salerno was reorganised in the mid-eleventh century, Trotula joined her husband and two sons at this university and they all worked on a medical encyclopaedia  entitled the Practica Brevis.  But it is the Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women) and Ornatu Mulierum on skin diseases, which were Trotula’s best known works and were used as a standard medical text until the 16th century.  The Ornatu was later incorporated into the Passionibus Mulierum.  Modern medical scholars agree that Trotula’s work was far in advance for its time, particularly with regards to obstetrics and the medical care of mother and child.  Trotula in her Passionibus emphasised the importance of maintaining a balanced diet, exercise and cleanliness.  All of which are not unfamiliar today. Trotula’s treatise also showed she was very familiar with Ancient Greek medical scientific theories.

Because Trotula’s treatise was so popular it was continuously copied and its title was often deliberately changed.  When Kasper Wolff of Basle, published a printed edition of Trotula’s Treatise in 1566 he attributed Trotula’s work to the male author, Eros Juliae a Greco-Roman Physician who had lived centuries before Trotula.  It was this publication which was used as evidence by some later historians to claim Trotula’s Treatise had not been written by a woman but was in fact the work of a male doctor living in Salerno.

Likewise the 20th century German medical historian Karl Sudhoff attempted to minimalise the status of ‘The Ladies of Salerno’ because he claimed they could not possibly have been physicians but only midwives and nurses.  Because in his view they were not physicians this meant Trotula could not have written Passionibus Mulierum, since it was too detailed and beyond the scope and expertise of a ‘mere midwife.’  However, Italian medical historians continue to maintain ‘The Ladies of Salerno’ did exist in the 11th and 12th centuries and that they were physicians not midwives.  But because it cannot be conclusively proved that Trotula was the author of the very important treatise Passionibus Mulierum, there continues to be doubt concerning her authorship.  But given the medieval Italian world did accept women as scholars and teachers this in itself makes it more likely Trotula was the author of the Passionibus Mulierum.  When one takes into account the fact innumerable men from the Ancient and Medieval world continue to be revered even though their existence is not as well established as Trotula, this in itself demonstrates the reason why so many women scientists continue to be ignored by male historians.  Accepting that women scientists were many rather than one or two, challenges male-centric views concerning scientific study and women.  Women scientists are indeed to be found within the history of women.

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women In Science From Antiquity to The Late Nineteenth Century, by Margaret Alic, provides a fascinating account of the accomplishments of women scientists whose discoveries and inventions continue to be ignored by malestream scientific historians.

Copyright: Jennifer Drew, October 2010